Following the spring game, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said he was pleased with the progress of his linebacking corps. Jay Henry, Jeff Noechel, Kevin McLee, Marc Magro and Bobby Hathaway all improved, and what was an area of concern became, if not a strength, at least a solid group. Add in the expected progress of redshirt freshman Mortty Ivy, and this sextet could be much better than anticipated.
What will be interesting to see, however, is how those six are moved around in response to game situations and the talents of opponents. Henry has the ability to play all three spots, and the presence of Magro behind him should allow him to do just that. Magro and Hathaway could see more action against running teams, as their physical play and hitting ability might match up better against ground-oriented foes. McLee could be moved around, especially in passing situations, to take advantage of his natural burst off the edge on blitzes.
Add it all up, and there are a number of permutations for Casteel to evaluate during fall camp as he devises a scheme to put his players in the best positions to have an impact on the game.
Everyone will be watching the long-awaited development of a consistent pass rush, but there are a couple of other items of interest to keep an eye on in WVU's pass defense packages.
Just as at linebacker, Casteel will likely deploy different personnel sets according to the situation and opponent, and third down and long offers one of the best options for variety. With two high quality backups at cornerback, in the form of Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis, you can expect to see extra defensive backs (even about the normal allotment of five) on the field in passing situations.
To make room, WVU could bring a spur, a linebacker, or both off the field in some situations, which would allow them to flood the field with quality pass coverage defenders. Bandit Mike Lorello is another candidate to move around – he could play a position with linebacker responsibilities in some situations, and would be an excellent blitz option in others, as he excels in making plays in the backfield.
Up front, a four man line is an option, but it probably won't be displayed often. Instead, watch for different personnel (Johnny Dingle is the player to watch) off the edge when the pass rush is turned loose. WVU will likely still depend on bringing an extra defender from the second level to make a four-man rush. The philosophy is to force opposing quarterbacks to throw short and make tackles short of the first down markers.
Adam Jones gave WVU an extra first down on most kick returns, and that yardage will be tough to replace. The Mountaineers have a couple of options, especially in the punt return game, that will be looked at over the next four weeks. Sure handed Anthony Mims, who is somewhat like steady Lance Frazier, gives WVU a safety net, but speedy players such as Lewis, Vaughn Rivers, and freshman Jeremy Bruce could also get a shot. If they can show the ability to crack long gains (or at least consistent ones) this could be one of the most intense scraps for playing time in camp.
Kickoff return, which is less demanding (primarily because there's no nearly as much pressure on catching the ball), will also have a number of candidates, including Rivers, Lewis, Pernell Williams and Brandon Myles. It can be tough to figure out who the best players are for this duty, because very few kickoff returns are run live, and at full speed, during camp, primarily due to the fear of injury. Many of the full speed drills come against the scout team, which usually can't approximate the level of athlete the return teams will be facing in games.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez admitted last year that he sometimes (most notably in the Virginia Tech game) got stuck in a rut with his playcalling. Give the fifth-year head coach credit for recognizing his mistake, but the watch will now be on to see if he can make the necessary in-game adjustments to avoid that problem in 2005. This is one area that might be difficult to practice during the preseason, as each unit works on a pre-selected set of plays and situations during each session. However, it might not be a bad idea to play one or two sets of downs during the scrimmages as close to game conditions as possible, with the offense and defense going in full-game mode and reacting to each others' formations and personnel packages.
One other interesting note covers the signaling and calling of plays. Former assistant coach Steve Bird handled that duty in past years, but during the spring it was handled by injured quarterback Adam Bednarik. Will a backup QB continue in that duty this fall, or will another coach be assigned that task?
It's the most nebulous of items, but it can, and often does, make the difference in one or two games per year. There's no way to predict how it will come out, and the answers usually aren't apparent until the season is well underway, but it can be one of the most critical attributes of a team.
Last season, there was an undercurrent of resentment at the way Jones and Chris Henry were treated, by both the media and the coaches. Rightly or wrongly, the perception was that those two players received preferential treatment, and more than their fair share of media coverage. Reports of this year's summer session seem to reveal that such problems have been left behind, and that although there are certainly stars on this Mountaineer team, none of them act like it. Cohesiveness and hard work could be the hallmarks of the 2005 team, and if that's the case, WVU could well exceed the third- or fourth-place finish predicted by many.
How important is this attribute? If you need historical reference, check out the 1993 team, which had much less star power than, say, the 1998 squad. However, the '93 Sugar Bowl squad was more successful, and much of it was due to the lack of egos, or at least attention-seeking ones, on the roster. This quality is mostly forged in the heat of summer workouts and the intense competition of fall camp, and this year's development will certainly be something to keep an eye on.